Charles de Secondat Montesquieu

Statut : Author


Notes : Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, belonged to a Bordeaux parliamentary family. From 1700 to 1705, he attended the oratorian Collège de Juilly. He then studied law at Bordeaux, and qualified as an advocate in 1708. After spending four years in Paris he returned to Bordeaux in 1714, where he became counsellor to the parliament conseiller au Parlement. In 1716 he entered the newly created Académie de Bordeaux and inherited from his uncle (whose name of Montesquieu he had taken in 1708) the office of president of the High Court in the parliament. During this year he also wrote a dissertation on “La Politique des Romains dans la religion”. In 1721, there appeared anonymously the “Lettres Persanes” ; the success of this work led Montesquieu to spend as much time as possible in Paris. Between 1721 and 1725 he wrote, among other works, “Lettres de Xénocrate à Phérès”, “Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate” (which he published in the “Mercure” in 1745 before including it in the 1748 edition of “Considérations sur les Romains”), and “Le Temple du Gnide”, published in 1724. In 1727, he composed the « Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne ». The next year Montesquieu was elected to the Académie Française. He then undertook a series of travels in Austria, Hungary, Italy and Holland, before his visit to England (1729-1732), where he was elected a member of the Royal Society of London and was intitiated as a freemason (in the lodge of Westminster). On his return to France, between 1732 and 1736 he worked on an « Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, on Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle en Europe » as well as on an essay on « La liberté politique ». His « Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence » was published in Amsterdam in 1734. A new edition revised by the author appeared in 1748 ; this is the basis for all subsequent editions. Again in 1748 “De l’Esprit des lois” was published anonymously at Geneva; it became immediately famous (by January 1750 there had already been 22 editions) and was the focus of lively debates. Montesquieu replied to the attacks of the jesuits and jansenists in 1750, with his “Défense de l’Esprit des lois”, but failed to prevent the the book being placed on the Index in the following year. Among the last publications of Montesquieu are the “Essai sur le gout”, composed in 1753 for the “Encyclopédie”, and “Lysimaque”, which was published in 1754 in the “Mercure”. The “Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur decadence” escaped the censor and the Index thanks to a jesuit, Père Castel, to whom Montesquieu had taken the precaution of submitting it before publication, and who had advised him to tone down certain passages, especially in the penultimate chapter dealing with religion. Pushing self-censorship still further, between the first and second printings, he inserted notices suppressing other legally doubtful passages, such as a defence of suicide at the end of chapter XII. Equally he resigned himself to a list of errata which were not all corrections of typographical errors. As a result of these concessions and the aid of P. Castel and Mme de Tencin, a Parisian edition appeared in the same year ‘avec approbation et privilège’. Montesquieu could therefore present the work officially to his colleagues in the Académie française. Although the reception of the “Considérations” was much less warm than that accorded earlier to the “Lettres persanes”, in a few months the Dutch edition was reprinted three times. The “Considérations” found many admirers in England and Germany, as is shown by their almost immediate translation. Frederick II of Prussia appears to have read them with close attention, and the German freemasons made of them a text for combatting tyranny and superstition. The reception of the book by the French “philosophes” was more reserved, but certainly not unfavourable. The reaction of Voltaire, never particularly well disposed towards Montesquieu, is significant in this respect. In a letter of November 1734, written in English and addressed to his friend Thieriot, he wrote thus: « Have you seen the little, and too little book writ by Montesquieu on the decadence of the empire ? They call it the decadence of Montesquieu. It is true the book is very far from being what he ought to be, but yet there are many things in it which deserve to be read, and that makes me angry with the author for having so lightly treated of so great a matter. This book is full of hints, is less a book than an ingenious “table des matières” writ in an odd stile. But to enlarge fully upon such a subject requires liberty. An author at London may give a full career to his thoughts, here he must stint them. We have here but the tenth part of our soul». The judgment of D’Alembert in his “Eloge posthume de Montesquieu” is more balanced: « Such a small volume has sufficed Monsieur de Montesquieu to develop so vast and interesting a tableau (…). In exposing much to view he has left still more to thought : and he could have entitled his book « a Roman history for the use of statesmen and philosophers ». If such a title seems relevant, it is because Montesquieu presents in the “Considérations” an original method of analysis of the historical facts, which consists in locating and laying out the general or particular (but always multiple) « causes », which determined the different steps in the development of Roman institutions. Conscious of his originality, he expounded the principles of his method in the famous chapter VIII of the “Considérations”. In “De l’esprit des lois”, the « causes » give way to the key concept of « the nature of things ». Montesquieu pushed to its limit this type of analysis by mobilising a multiplicity of historical experiences – including of course that of the Romans, who retain an important role –, experiences which are mutually illuminated through comparative study. In fact, the influence of Montesquieu on historical reflection, from Louis de Beaufort to Fustel de Coulanges, is far from being negligible.

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